Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen by Giles Tremlett - review by John Edwards

John Edwards

Sovereign of the Seas

Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen


Bloomsbury 607pp £25 order from our bookshop

Queens and queenship are now very fashionable subjects in historical writing, yet there has not been a major book in English devoted to the life of Isabella I of Castile since 2004, when Peggy K Liss published a revised edition of her 1992 work.

Giles Tremlett, a journalist resident in Spain who has already shown his prowess as a historian in his biography of Isabella’s youngest daughter, Catherine of Aragon, here offers a lively and generally fluent account of the life of the Catholic King (a title granted to Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand, by Pope Alexander VI, a Spaniard, who is luridly portrayed here). The book is based on very extensive and up-to-date research involving both primary and secondary sources. It offers a largely chronological account of Isabella’s life, from her birth in 1451, when it was never seriously expected that she would inherit the Castilian throne, to her death in 1504, by which stage she had become a powerful ruler, not only of her own kingdom but also of its growing overseas territories. By virtue of her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon she also exercised some authority in that kingdom and his other dominions, which included Sicily and much of southern Italy.

Aiming largely at a general readership, Tremlett adopts a fairly brisk narrative approach, though, very reasonably, he sometimes sets aside strict chronology in order to deal with particular themes, such as the Inquisition (refounded in Spain during Isabella and Ferdinand’s reign) and the beginnings of Spanish contact with the New

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